We asked Aaron Parlier, author of the definitive book “Grayson Highlands Bouldering” (second edition in the works) to recommend 10 favorite bouldering excursions in the Virginia mountains. Here are his picks.
Virginia has historically been considered the sleepy in-between state when considering bouldering popularity in the Southeast. The Old Dominion is sandwiched top and bottom by North Carolina’s High Country climbing scene and the wildness of West Virginia’s New River Gorge and its seemingly endless riverside boulders. As the climbing community in the western portion of Virginia grew, what once were clandestine boulderfields are now growing increasingly popular.
Second Mountain has been a locals’ favorite for quite some time and McAfee Knob has been well-known to hold beautiful boulders alongside its panoramic overlook.
More recently, the Cascades Recreational Area has become a favorite amongst Blacksburg and Virginia Tech climbers. Grayson Highlands State Park and its thousands of high-elevation boulder problems have gained international attention for its easily accessible warm season bouldering opportunities and beautiful Appalachian scenery.
Further southwest, a bounty of amazing sandstone bouldering has been realized near the towns of Coeburn and Norton. Scattered throughout the ridges and valleys of the western part of the state are a lifetime’s worth of high quality boulders. Here are 10 favorites that shouldn’t be missed!
1. Satellite Boulder
Second Mountain, Harrisonburg
This one is wonderful! The Satellite boulder sports a fantastic roof and boasts a solid grade range from V0-V10. “Roof Problem”(V4) is a classic for the grade and “Worm World”(V8) would be a favorite in most any location. For a power endurance test piece in the Shenandoah Valley, “Jared’s Traverse”(V10) should do the trick.
The lure: Second Mountain is very close and accessible to climbers located near Harrisonburg and James Madison University. There are only a handful of boulders on Second, but the quality sandstone, fun climbs and varied grades leave something for most everyone to enjoy.
The walk: The hike can be grueling, especially if the trail is overgrown. Expect the hike to take 45 minutes uphill or 35 hiking out. Check the free topo map on drtopo.com for directions and for more detailed descriptions of the bouldering.
Nearby: Be sure to stop by Swift Run Gap and everything that is within and around Shenandoah National Park. The Appalachian Trail is nearby and there are also highly regarded single-track mountain bike trails around the Shenandoah region.
Apres-Rock: Being only 15 minutes west of Harrisonburg, I recommend hopping over to Jack Brown’s Beer & Burger Joint located at 80 S Main St., Harrisonburg. 540-433-5225. Don’t miss the Jalapeno Popper Burger and fries!
2. Tipping Boulder
Harkening Hill Trail at the Peaks of Otter
The lure: This boulder, near mile marker 86 along the Blue Ridge Parkway, is both aesthetic and unique in that it is a trailside, seemingly precariously balanced, egg-shaped block. There are five or six fun climbs here, all at a low to medium height with difficulties ranging from V3-V6. Several of these climbs start off quite steep and then round over to a low angle top. Don’t miss trying the “Tipping Point” (V5) or “The Final Straw” (V6). Harkening Hill boulders are made of Gneiss and form very interesting and challenging features. You can find information online for over 140 other climbs at Harkening Hill.
The walk: The easy to moderate hike to the Tipping Point boulder takes roughly 25 minutes depending on your hiking prowess. Along the way you are treated with nice views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and surrounded by a beautiful hardwood forest. From the Tipping Boulder you have access to several slopes and aspects covered by hundreds of wonderful free-standing boulders. This is one of the most undeveloped and exciting boulderfields in the Old Dominion.
Nearby: From the same parking lot you can hike up to the summit of Sharptop Mountain. The trail is approximately 3 miles long and affords the hiker some of the best views in Virginia. Also, the Blue Ridge Parkway is the main thoroughfare here, so don’t miss out on the sightseeing along the way.
Apres-Rock: Peaks of Otter Lodge, or, in nearby Buchanan, stop by the Grill & Fountain to get an old-timey sandwich or float.
3. Cascadia Boulder
Cascades Recreation Area, Pembroke
The lure: Cascadia is a massive streamside sandstone boulder just minutes from the parking lot and a short drive from the VA Tech campus. With up to fifteen climbs ranging from V0-V9, most every climber can find something fun and challenging. Cascadia has shorter vertical problems and an enormous roof. Don’t miss “Accelerated Freefall”(V9), “Inglorious Bastards”(V8), and “Threat Level Midnight”(V5). You can find information on over a hundred other boulder problems at the Cascades Recreation Area online.
The walk: Take the Cascades Trail from the parking lot and the Cascadia Boulder is just a short distance away. The rest of the 4-mile loop trail follows the creek for a nice, mostly flat stroll.
Nearby: Further up the trail you can enjoy charming wooden bridges crossing the peaceful Little Stony Creek leading to the awesome 66-foot tall Cascades waterfall. Time your visit right on a very cold winter week and you can see the waterfall frozen solid.
Apres-Rock: The Riviera Mex Grill is a great place to grab a burrito on your way out of the Cascades in Pembroke.
4. Roadside Boulder
McAfee Knob, Catawba Valley Drive, Catawba
The lure: The Roadside Boulder has long been considered a proving ground for Southwest Virginia boulderers. This steep fin of rock has climbs ranging from V1-V10 only a stone’s throw from the parking lot, and serves as a nice introduction for the array of amazing boulders in the surrounding areas.
The walk: The walk to the Roadside Boulder, as well as the other nearby bouldering areas such as the Highball Boulders, Mickey Mouse Boulder, and Dragon Boulders, are all within five-15 minutes.
Nearby: Do yourself a favor, even if you are not climbing, and make the hike up to McAfee Knob. The McAfee Knob overlook is the most-photographed location anywhere along the 2,100+-mile long Appalachian Trail.
Apres-Rock: If you are visiting McAfee Knob and have never been to the Homeplace Restaurant, treat yourself. Only a few minutes over the mountain from the McAfee parking lot, this old-timey comfort food restaurant will leave you feeling as full and stuffed as Thanksgiving dinner.
5. Finite Boulder
McAfee Knob, Catawba Valley Drive, Catawba
The lure: The Finite Boulder sits directly beside the gorgeous McAfee overlook and is host to a number of classic boulder problems. Take in the view and then challenge yourself to a number of great climbs. The Finite Boulder is a large roof and beside it is the highly popular Mayflower Boulder. On the Finite Boulder don’t miss “Finite Element Analysis” (V5) and “Austin’s Seam” (V7). On the Mayflower is the classic “Ship’s Prow”(V3).
The walk: While the hike to the top can be rather grueling with a crashpad full of gear, the 3.7-mile uphill hike is well worth it for the view alone. Factor in nearly 100 boulder problems at the top of the mountain and you’ll be coming back over and over again!
Nearby: Once at the top you have views for miles of the Appalachian Mountains.
Apres-Rock: See the above for the Homeplace Restaurant.
6. Olympus Boulder
Picnic Area, Grayson Highlands State Park, Rugby
The lure: The Olympus Boulder has it all. A 30-second approach from your car, nearby picnic tables and charcoal grills, indoor restrooms and picnic shelters, an outdoor amphitheater with summer concerts and festivals, a playground, and every grade from V0 to Virginia’s most difficult boulder problem “Loose Cannon”(V12-13). Let’s not forget that there are five other boulders within walking distance from Olympus too! GHSP is a wonderful summer bouldering location, being at or near 5,000 feet in elevation, and the steeply overhung Olympus keeps you in the shade all day long.
The walk: It is easy to get spoiled by the Olympus Boulder approach. Park your car and head into the dense rhododendron beside the parking lot. Within 30 seconds the towering 60-degree roof is looming overhead.
Nearby: Being in Grayson Highlands, you have a myriad of outdoor recreational activities to choose from. In the picnic area alone there is the historical homestead with handmade cabins to tour. Beside the Rock House Boulder (directly across the parking lot from Olympus Boulder) is the Rock House Loop Trail with beautiful views, hardwood forests, and loads of blackberries in the summer.
Apres-Rock: Take a short three-mile drive out of the park and get yourself some delicious food and camp supplies at the wonderful Grayson Highlands General Store. Don’t miss out on the barbeque chicken sandwich! They make their own homemade barbeque sauce. It’s so good you’ll ask for seconds!
7. Horizon Boulder
Highlands Area, Grayson Highlands State Park, Rugby
The lure: Horizon Boulder is the poster child of Grayson Highlands and one of the most-photographed and recognizable blocks in the Southeastern United States. Visible from several miles away in a windswept meadow at 5,000 feet in elevation, this highball boulder is worth the trip to Grayson by itself. Factor in a free roaming herd of adorable miniature ponies and you won’t want to leave! “Horizon Line”(V6) and “Event Horizon”(V8) are two standout climbs on the Horizon Boulder, and the nearby “Highland Highball”(V2) is superb.
The walk: The approach to the Horizon Boulder takes about 20 minutes if you are casually walking and enjoying the view. Bring an empty bottle in season for the wild blueberries on your way up.
Nearby: Mount Rogers, Virginia’s highest peak, is great day hike from Grayson Highlands State Park. Take the Rhododendron Trail to join the Appalachian Trail out of the Park. Hike through the beautiful Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and turn off of the Appalachian Trail onto the Mount Rogers spur trail. This will take you through a beautiful conifer forest to Virginia’s highest elevation (alas, no views from the summit).
Apres-Rock: Visit the Grayson Highlands General Store (see above)!
8. Big Rig Boulder
Wildwood Area, Grayson Highlands State Park, Rugby
The lure: The Big Rig Boulder is just as aesthetic as it is large. This boulder stands at 20+-feet tall and has multiple high-quality climbs to choose from. The boulder itself is dark gray but the massive basketball sized cobles contrast with striking white and pink colors. Don’t miss “A Boy Named Sue”(V4), “Folsom Prison”(V3), and “Crucible”(V5).
The walk: The hike into the Wildwood is easy downhill but somewhat grueling on the way out. The Wildwood Area is not listed in the current Volume 1 of “GHSP Bouldering Guidebook,” but more information can be found online. Volume 2 is in the works and will comprehensively cover the Wildwood Area and much more!
Nearby: The Listening Rock Trail, which you walk along to reach the Wildwood Area, is a wonderful loop trail with expansive views of the Appalachian landscape. Additionally, above the parking lot is the GHSP Visitor Center that has a gift shop, snacks, and a nature exhibit. At the visitor center you can find the trailhead for the Twin Pinnacles Trail with amazing views of the Highlands, Mount Rogers, Whitetop Mountain and beyond.
Apres-Rock: Visit the Grayson Highlands General Store (see above).
9. Casablanca Boulder
Guest River Gorge, Coeburn
The lure: Located in the stunning Guest River Gorge, which boasts both high-quality route climbing and bouldering, the Casablanca Boulder is one of many five-star streamside sandstone boulders to choose from. Casablanca stands at about 15 feet in height and has a 10-foot undercut horizontal roof. Be sure to try the immaculate compression test piece “Casablanca Roof”(V9).
The walk: The entire Guest River Gorge Trail is a flat, well-maintained gravel bike and walking trail with clearly marked mile posts. The Casablanca Boulder is trailside at the end of mile one beside the river.
Nearby: While in the area, take a bike ride down the Guest River Gorge trail and take in the scenic Guest River via large trestle bridges and an old coal train tunnel. The Guest River itself boasts some challenging white water kayaking too!
Apres-Rock: The Frosty Bossie in Coeburn should not be missed! The milkshakes are top notch and the fresh-made burgers are always awesome.
10. Allegory Boulder
Labyrinth Area, High Knob, Norton
The lure: The Labyrinth Area is a large maze-like sandstone outcropping on the picturesque High Knob Massif. The Allegory Boulder is enormous and can easily be separated into three large individual boulders: The Allegory, Origins and High Water boulders. Once at the Allegory Boulder you can take your pick of short climbs or harrowing highballs, slabby lines, harsh overhangs, or tricky arêtes. Don’t miss “Allegory of the Cave”(V5), “Hell or High Water”(V6) or “Pappaws Bones”(V2).
The walk: When parking along the roadside pull-offs, the walk takes less than five minutes and the remnant logging road will lead you directly to the overhung Allegory Arête and the passageway to the rest of the boulders at the Labyrinth.
Nearby: While at High Knob, don’t miss hiking along the nice trails around Norton Reservoir or checking out the fine single-track mountain biking in the region. Also, the High Knob observation tower offers spectacular views with an easy hike. Also nearby is the stunning Devil’s Bathtub trail and Flag Rock park and campground.
Apres-Rock: If you are in Norton you simply have to stop by Magnolia Kitchen. It is a fantastic Cajun and creole restaurant with a nice bar and quiet atmosphere. The Black and Blue Burger and Jambalaya will keep you coming back time and again!